Who feels it, knows it…Indeed.
Burning Spear came to us as part of the roots reggae abundance after Bob Marley & the Wailers had trailblazed for the Rasta rhythms. Marley’s “Live !” was the gift to give or to get for Xmas 1975. Before Bob the only reggae LPs you were likely to find in your friends’ collections were some of the 8 “Tighten Up” compilations from Trojan or “1000 volts of (John) Holt” a sweet & dandy reggaefiction of the middle of the road. Island Records, with a Jamaican owner, had a head start & some fine artists. Virgin went over there &, seemingly, signed up everyone else. . Their “Front Line” sampler, just 69p ($1.15), included classics by the likes of U Roy & Johnny Clarke. New LPs by Max Romeo (“War In A Babylon”) & Burning Spear had such a unity (inity…anyone ?) of musical confidence & lyrical commitment that you could not help but know that something interesting was happening in Jamaica.
Reggae had never been reticent about idiosyncratic expedition but Spear’s album “Marcus Garvey” had a distinctive, special otherness. The cream of the island’s players made their way to Jack Ruby’s place at Ocho Rios, the only studio outside of Kingston. Not a journey or a note was wasted. The music had an earthiness but it was not simple or unsophisticated it was passionate. It was double pastoral, of the pasture & the pastor. A relentless logic in the rhythms, an assertive spiritual urgency in the lyrics. The closest to Africa of these new sounds. Boy, “Marcus Garvey” was irresistible. When Winston Rodney sang “Give me what is mine” it was time to hand it over.
The LP captured our heads, hearts & hips & then, just 4 months later, “Garvey’s Ghost” was released. Dub Reggae was no “what’s it doing & what does it want ?” alien strain of music. We knew about this stuff, knew that when reggae stretched out it was about the drum & the bass. There had been dub records in the Top 10…Skanga ! In 1976 “Garvey’s Ghost” & “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” brought the dub from the blues party down the road into your living room where it has remained a welcome guest. I know the record was mixed in the concrete jungle of Hammersmith, a suburb of Babylon. I know that there is dispute & divergence about who did what to the final release mixes of both “Marcus Garvey” and its dub “Ghost”. All we had was what was on the vinyl. The shadow versions sounded more than fine as a stand alone record but the reference points of the original record made this rhythmic recycling a delight. I spent too much time in need of a third hand trying to drop the needle on the record & press “play” on the cassette machine aiming for the perfect tape mix of these tunes.
This burst of Rasta reggae did get heard. The next 2 summers were soundtracked by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & “Exodus”. Don Letts, DJ at the Roxy club started a punky reggae party, a braid of anti-establishment, militant musics which spread around UK punk hangouts. Black American music had almost given up on the Funk, hitching its wagon to the shiny, smooth dance-yourself-dizzy Disco Train. The lovely, liquid, stoned chug of Dreadlock Reggae convergent with militant, conscious, sectarian lyrics triumphed on twin fronts, sustaining a tradition of great floor-filling tunes which were talking loud & saying something.
Burning Spear seemed to be part of the tradition of Jamaican vocal trios. The music made by Curtis Mayfield with the Impressions, soulful, spiritual harmonies were very influential on the islands singers. Spear, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds & others were coming up to join a long distinguished list topped by the Heptones, the Wailers & the Maytals. “Marcus Garvey” & the next release “Man In The Hills” credited the harmony vocals of Delroy Hinds & Rupert Willington though it was the rich, fervent lead of Winston Rodney which made the songs distinct & impressive. Winston Rodney became Burning Spear and he still is. His next LPs featured his righteous hymns to Rastafari, direct truths concerning both joy & oppression which I would love to squeeze in here but hey, we have not got all day…soon come.
Just as listening to & appreciating the militant funk from black American musicians did not make you a Black Panther a fathoming of this music needed no homage to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, conquring Lion of the tribe of Judah. This was never a matter of cultural tourism. If you lived in a British city at this time then you heard this music in clubs, at friends’ houses, from the open windows of passing cars. Among your friends, those children of immigrants, the first generation of Black Britons, all considered the relevance of Rasta to their experience of growing up in a racist society. My workmate Horace, who previously sported a Jackson 5 ‘fro, showed up with baby dreads one Monday…yeah man ! White guys with locks ? I spit in their general direction, follow fashion monkey losers ! Burning Spear was in the vanguard of conscious, eloquent, purposeful music which was given a fair hearing becuse those qualities, combined with cool, deadly dance rhythms are just what you need. Good (& high) times.